200 million girls and women in the world have been mutilated. According to UNICEF, at least 30 million more will have suffered the same ordeal in ten years. Voices are raised to end these practices and, thankfully, they are increasingly heard. But the prevalence of female genital mutilation is still alarmingly high.
A widespread patriarchal tradition
Excision, clitoridectomy, infibulation… are just a few types of genital mutilations that are still being inflicted on girls and women in about thirty countries. Most victims live in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. 5% of them live in Europe and come from migrant families that keep alive old traditions, despite the laws which forbid them. In Mali, Mauritania, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, in Djibouti or Sudan, 40% of girls below the age of 14 have been mutilated. In the capital of Somaliland, 82% of girls undergo infibulation, also known as “pharaonic excision” – the worst kind of genital mutilation.
The WHO defines female genital mutilations (FGM) or “cutting” (FGC) as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. These mutilations put girls and women in grave danger and cause severe physiological and psychological issues. FGM is considered a human rights violation. “When you do this to a woman, you cease to consider her as a human being”, states Pierre Foldès, the French surgeon who pioneered a reconstructive surgery to help women who have gone through FGM.
The men (and often, the women) who keep these patriarchal traditions alive claim that these mutilations help social cohesion, promote feminine beauty, hygiene or even health, and help control female sexuality. For Pierre Foldès, the prevalence of FGM comes from the “ancient fear men have of female sexuality”.
Laws against traditions
In many countries, states have passed laws to put an end to female cutting. A “fatwa” forbids infibulation in Somaliland since February 2018. In Burkina Faso, where FGM has been made illegal in 1996, Amnesty International found that 48 girls suffered medical complications following genital mutilation in September 2018. 38 of them live in the capital.
In Togo, as in most countries, the mutilations were executed by women until the 1998 criminalization law. Some former excisors still deny the suffering they inflicted. “Genital mutilations are deeply rooted in retrograde traditions that persist despite legal advances”, states the “man who mends women”, Dr Denis Mukwege, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his work with the Panzi Foundation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Changing the law will not be enough to change the ways. “For so long, FGC was considered a private matter. In order to create social change, you have to make it public”, explains FGM victim and Indian activist Mariya Taher.
In India, where FGM isn’t banned, women of the Bohra community have created the NGO Sahiyo to bring an end to cutting. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the NGO Wadi is raising awareness with young mothers, hoping to convince them to put an end to the brutal tradition that dictates a mother should oversee her own daughters’ mutilations.
During the international conference on genital mutilations which took place in Ouagadougou in October 2018, politicians and civil rights activists from all over the world discussed national strategies that could help attain the UN goal of ending FGM by 2030. Conjoined efforts of governments and field actors are starting to pay off. A recent study published by British Medical Global Health showed a decline in the total number of mutilations, particularly among children of 14 and less.
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